Tree 70–80 m tall, 1.5–2.5 m dbh. Crown narrowly conical or pyramidal in young trees; later conical or conical-columnar, often free of branches to a great height in forest environments. Bark of young trees thin, olive-green to green-grey, smooth, with many prominent resin blisters; on old trees becoming grey-brown, fissured and breaking up into small plates. First order branches long, usually slender, spreading horizontally or curved and downswept; second order branches spreading, often ascending near the ends of first order branches. Branchlets slender, firm, olive-green to reddish brown at first, later grey or grey-brown, narrowly ridged, minutely pubescent when young but glabrous by the 3rd year. Vegetative buds globose, 1.5–2 × 1.5 mm, slightly resinous. Leaves on vegetative shoots pectinately spreading more or less horizontally, the upper ranks shorter than the lower, (2–)3–6 cm × 2–3 mm, strongly twisted at base, flattened or with slightly revolute margins, on vegetative shoots glossy dark green and entirely free of stomata above, greenish-white below with two conspicuous narrow stomatal bands. Crushed foliage gives a distinctive aroma of grapefruit. Pollen cones axilliary, 1.2–1.8 cm long, yellowish-green. Seed cones subsessile, 5–7(–12) × 3–4 cm, ovoid or cylindrical, pale green when young, sometimes flushed purple or blue, ripening to dull greenish- yellowish- or greyish-brown, resinous; seed scales broad-flabellate, 2–2.5 × 2.5–3 cm; bracts fully included. (Farjon 2017; Debreczy & Rácz 2011; Hunt 1993).
Distribution Canada British Columbia United States Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California
Habitat Temperate rainforest from sea-level to c. 1800 m asl. In lowlands near the coast it associates with other large-growing conifers including Abies amabilis, A. procera, Picea sitchensis, Pseudotsuga menziesii, Thuja plicata and Tsuga heterophylla.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6-7
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Abies grandis is one of the forest giants of the Pacific Northwest and, possibly, the largest growing fir in the world. At its zenith, in lowland temperate rainforest in British Columbia and Washington, characterised by cool summers and high precipitation, it takes its place among the tallest growing tree species on earth. Farjon (2017), not normally prone to exaggeration, suggests it might even attain 100 m, but this probably refers to historic measurements from trees on the best ground, which has long since been cleared for agriculture and development. At its southern limit in California it mingles with Sequoia sempervirens near the coast, while inland in the northern Rocky Mountains, west of the Continental Divide, the climate is somewhat drier, with a greater proportion of precipitation falling as snow. Here its associates most commonly include Larix occidentalis, Picea engelmanii, Pinus contorta, P. monticola, P. ponderosa, and Populus trichocarpa (Debreczy & Rácz 2011).
Grand Fir was brought to scientific attention by David Douglas, who found it near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1825 and introduced it to cultivation in Britain some years later in c. 1831 (Bean 1976), but the first travellers to encounter it may have been Lewis and Clark, who would probably have seen it when they crossed Montana’s Bitter Root Mountains in 1805 (Sudworth 1916). In cultivation, as in its native range, Grand Fir was found to grow quickly and it wasn’t long before its vigour attracted the attention of foresters. Before the introduction and trialling of various eucalypts some of the fastest growing stands of trees in Britain were Grand Fir: a stand growing near Keltie in Perthshire, Scotland, was blown down in 1953 when aged 53 years, but the tallest was already c. 50 m tall (Mitchell 1972). Today Grand Fir remains an important species in commercial forestry in the UK and several other countries outside its native range (Savill 2013).
While it is still planted en-masse for timber production, it is surprising that Grand Fir has become relatively seldom planted in arboreta and landscapes, particularly in the UK. As a vigorous and reliable grower it is often used as a nurse tree and in windbreaks, but much more thoughtful planting is required if our designed landscapes are to benefit from a future succession of stately, massive trees as they do now.
When Bean penned his first edition in 1914 the tallest examples in the UK and Ireland stood at c. 27–30 m (Bean 1914). By the time of the 8th edition the goalposts had moved: ‘a tree would have to be near [c. 45 m] to be outstanding’ (Bean 1976). To bring this hierarchy up to date for the early 21st century, with so many examples now exceeding 50 m in the UK and Ireland, a tree really must be nudging 60 m to be considered outstanding.
Trees of this stature are concentrated, as is the case with so many conifers from the Pacific Northwest, in the deep, sheltered glens of Scotland, especially in Argyll, Perthshire, and parts of the Highlands. Of the eight examples recorded by the Tree Register exceeding 60 m in early 2020, three are in Perthshire, two in the Highlands, one in Argyll, and two are in Wales, one each in Powys and Gwynedd. Of these, the very tallest was measured at 63.4 m in 2019, growing in Ardkinglas Woodland Garden in Argyll. This tree has at various times held the mantle of the tallest tree in the UK and Ireland, a title nowadays comfortably held by a group of Pseudotsuga menziesii in Gwydyr Forest, Conwy, Wales, the tallest of which are over 67 m in early 2021. The next tallest Grand Fir, 63 m in 2015, grows at Blair Castle in Highland Perthshire, in an area known as Diana’s Grove – a mid-Victorian planting of predominantly North American conifers which have now reached staggering proportions (Tree Register 2020).
Of those merely approaching 60 m, only a few can be singled out for comment. A cluster of several more may be found in Diana’s Grove, while trees of c. 57 m may be found approximately 20 miles to the south, on the banks of the River Tay near Dunkeld Cathedral, and on the east drive to nearby Murthly Castle. The Murthly tree is also the largest in the UK and Ireland by girth, with a dbh of 2.47 m when measured in 2017. Of all nineteen trees recorded between by the Tree Register between 55 and 60 m height in spring 2020, thirteen are in Scotland, four in Wales, and only two in England, one of c. 58 m in Cumbria, and the other of c. 56 m in County Durham. Only two exceeding 50 m are reported from the island of Ireland, a pair of 52 m trees growing in the grounds of Caledon Castle, Co Tyrone (Tree Register 2020).
In mainland Europe there are trees of similar proportions, but the available data suggests these are either under-reported, or not nearly so frequent as they are in the UK. Four trees exceeding 57 m height grow in forest conditions near the town of Preußisch Oldendorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. The tallest of the four was over 60 m when measured in 2016. Examples exceeding 50 m may also be found in Belgium, one at the Arboretum de Bouillon, another at the Arboretum Tervuren, while one tree over 50 m is reported from Collet-de-Dèze, France (monumentaltrees.com). Early signs of Grand Fir’s value to forestry ensured it followed hot on the heels of European emigrants to the antipodes: examples exceeding 50 m occur in New Zealand, where it is locally common (notabletrees.org.nz). It is also cultivated in temperate South America (pers. obs.).
Grand Fir is only likely to be confused with Low’s Fir, treated here as A. concolor var. lowiana, but sometimes as A. lowiana or A. concolor Lowiana Group. The strong resinous-citrus smell of crushed Grand Fir needles, often likened to grapefruit, is also a feature of Low’s Fir, but that species has distinctly pruinose needles, quite unlike the glossy dark green of Grand Fir, which also lacks stomata on the upper surface of its needles. Very few cultivars are known; most are dwarfs, but these are not discussed here.
A remarkable, old cultivar first selected in Germany in the late 19th century. The new growth flushes yellow in the spring, and gradually ages yellowish-green. Susceptible to scorching as a young plant, and though not as vigorous as the typical species, it can still form a sizeable tree (Auders & Spicer 2012).
Synonyms / alternative names
Abies grandis f. johnsonii
An upright form (not strictly fastigiate) making a narrow tree of medium size on account of its very short branching (Auders & Spicer 2012). John Johnson found the original near Rainier, Oregon in 1897, but didn’t name it until 1942. Most sizeable examples seem to be restricted to gardens and collections in the Pacific Northwest. Jacobson notes one at the Hoyt Arboretum, planted 1949 and 20 m × 3 m spread in 1993 (Jacobson 1996). The foliage is variably described as less flattened, and the leaves shorter, than the typical species (Hatch 2021–2022).
Raised in the Späth nursery in the late 19th century, this rather irregular plant can reportedly grow several meters tall, but much wider (Auders & Spicer 2012). That it has never become commonly grown is perhaps a more useful review of it than any description.